Nasty boardroom battles that tore apart Brand Kenya

Former Brand Kenya CEO Mary Luseka.
President Uhuru Kenyatta assembled one of the most talented teams to be in charge of Kenya’s brand in the run up to the election.

Aware of the damage that the country’s image suffers at election time, State House went for some of the biggest names from the marketing, media and businessmen spheres to work with Government technocrats to make sure Kenya’s image comes out of the election unscathed.  

Among those on the Brand Kenya Board were TV news anchor Julie Gichuru, respected marketer Chris Diaz, who was the marketing director at Kenya Airways and Bidco Africa, Geoffrey Shimanyula, who is described as a seasoned business executive with 20 years’ experience working for multinational corporations and Kathleen Kihanya, the MD of Sundales International.

To lead the star team was businessman Chris Kirubi, who was appointed to chair the Brand Kenya board. He was to bring on board his experience as a director at several companies among them investment firm Centum which owns the largest Coca Cola bottling plant in Kenya, that runs some of the best marketing campaigns in the region.

To run the organisation, the Tourism Ministry, where BrandKenya was domiciled at the time plucked Mary Luseka from the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB).

On the table were four key projects among them the Kenya achievements campaign that was to focus on branding Kenya through the lens of the Big Four Agenda. Other campaigns were the public service brandinginitiative, made in Kenya campaign to help increase consumption of locally made products and county brandingto boost inter county trade, tourism and investment.  

With the burden weighing on their shoulders, the team immediately got down to work. Ms Luseka, who found the accounts at the corporation and the office almost empty due to lack of staff, got the blessings of her board and her parent ministry to do a proposal to seek finances. Correspondence between her and the ministry now filed in court has helped lift the veil on a ferocious war that would later see her kicked out. Luseka says she was directly responsible for the allocation of the mobilised funds to the organisation through her personal initiative to draw a funding proposal that was approved by the Government.

All went well until the corporation’s achievers award proposal on how to give Kenyans another reason not to fight during the electioneering period got a Sh1.2billion funding commitment from the National Treasury.

The Treasury agreed to fund the proposal in two phases with the first half of Sh500million being disbursed within the 2016/17 financial year while the second half was to come in the 2017/18 financial year.

Main objective

“The primary objective of the campaign was to turn Kenyans into believers in their country and in the fact that Kenya was moving forward by keeping them abreast of progress and achievements the country had made, while also unifying them and organising them towards participation in nation building,” minutes filed in court read in part. It is after this commitment was done that all hell broke loose, according to the court documents. Eight firms would bid for the job from which three were selected. These were Media Compete East Africa Limited, Media Edge Interactive Limited and Inter Management Group (IMG).

But as this was happening, there were behind the scenes fights that threatened to derail the campaign. Luseka says Mr Kirubi called her in July and August instructing her to stop the campaign on grounds that the money would instead be put to better use. This prompted the board to do a second review of the campaign idea all the way to the execution.

Minutes also show that Kirubi had asked the board to consider a proposal to partner with Coca Cola for marketing Kenya but this fell through after the parties failed to secure a Memorandum of Understanding to guide their engagements. Coca Cola had indicated that they would be doing the campaign for free. Luseka has accused Kirubi of not declaring his interest in this matter.

Court documents also show there were also a series of informal board meetings outside the office meant to make changes to the approved procurement plans. Luseka who has accused Kirubi of direct interference in procurement matters would write letters to her parent ministry seeking support.

On October 3, 2017, Kirubi directed the Brand Kenya board to stop any additional expenditure on the achievement campaign with immediate effect. “This is to direct you to stop any further spend on the above campaign with immediate effect,” Kirubi wrote. “Please forward to the finance committee all outstanding payments and commissions due to the agencies and any other third party organisation.”

In taking the decision, the board claimed that the balance of Sh500million that would have been disbursed was in jeopardy owing to lack of prudence by Luseka.

“The board set itself up to fail due to vested interests in the first tranche disbursed through the role they played in frustrating the project implementation and interfering with procurements resulting in their own decision to stop expenditure on the campaign,” she says in her response.

Before putting a hold on the project, other staff matters had come up that needed the intervention of the board.

In September last year, following anonymous letters on the abuse of office as well as harassment of staff, Kirubi commissioned an employee survey that would form the basis of Luseka’s sacking. Three days after he commissioned the survey, three board members Kihanya, Shimanyula and Margaret Kositany arrived at the BrandKenya Board offices and assembled staff in the boardroom to administer a questionnaire.

Delayed payments

By then, Luseka was already facing a court case over delayed payments and alleged mistreatment off staff. The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission officials were also snooping around. Court documents show that EACC had written to the agency requesting for information to help it in its investigations into allegations of procurement irregularities.

The other battle ground is the qualification of Luseka for the job. The board accused her of not being qualified to be appointed the CEO.

“It is not true that I misrepresented my qualifications to the board and in fact no evidence of any such misrepresentation has been provided to court,” she said in her defence. She said she had a masters of Business Administration from Strathmore University at the time of her appointment. Days after the survey, board members would return to the Brand Kenya offices for a Board Marketing committee meeting. During the AOB of this meeting, members started discussing various contents from the survey and sought the responses of the CEO. In March 2018, Luseka received warning letter, reprimanding her for non-utilisation of funds and her poor working relationship with her staff following an employee survey. But the sacked CEO now alleges the exercise was stage managed.

On April 18th, the board through the human resource committee decided that they had had enough and sent her home on leave.

At this time, she was isolated and it was just a matter of time before she would be fully kicked out. As the last kicks of a dying horse, Luseka now deciding escalate the matter to the Head of Public Service Joseph Kinyua two weeks after she was sent on leave. In the last attempt to keep her job, Luseka requested Mr Kinyua to intervene and help reconcile her with the board.

She said the board had been riddled with governance challenges over the past one year which had been brought to the attention of the then Industrialisation Cabinet secretary, Adan Mohamed. She said the CS recommended that the board undertakes a governance training and a retreat to iron out their differences. The training took place in November 2017.

“The Principal Secretary Chris Kiptoo has also intervened from time to time creating the much needed sanity that led to the progress this far on key projects. Unfortunately, the above interventions have not had the desired lasting impact since the same challenges continue to bedevil the corporation,” she wrote in the letter dated April 27, 2018.

Luseka also alleges that the board had been making numerous ad hoc and arbitrary changes to the work plans without reference to management and without consideration of the impact of the changes would have on project outcomes.

“The Adhoc changes have created leeway for the introduction of activities that have possible conflict of interest,” she adds.

Last week President Kenyatta revoked the appointment of Kirubi, who has been unwell and replaced him with former NMG chief executive Linus Gitahi.   

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